Only some of this is about Jeremy Clarkson

Try to forget one man and his silly comments.

This was going to be a post about Jeremy Clarkson. About how I like Clarkson: as right-wing writers go, he's rather good. (He's no PJ O'Rourke, no matter how desperately hard he tries, but he makes me chuckle. I hereby ask for my "The Left" membership card to be rescinded immediately.)

This isn't a case of: "First they came for the Clarksons, and I didn't speak up because I wasn't a jowly denim-clad petrolhead oaf roaring half-baked grandstanding silliness to needle-dicked losers who like cars." This is just a silly man saying silly things, exaggerating them to make them sound sillier.

Wouldn't you know it, he's got a book out as well; I'm sure this entirely coincidental controversy might shift a few units. The more people get outraged, the more of them will probably be sold, and the more money he'll make. See how Clarkson nourishes himself by licking your salt tears of outrage; see how your hate has made him powerful.

I was going to expand on all of that, but then I saw the news, and Clarkson's comments being the lead item on the news, and it depressed me entirely. Thousands upon thousands of people all over the country got together yesterday to battle against the Government, yet because one person says some tedious trolling deliberately controversial load of old guff to flog a few books, that's shifted the entire focus of public debate. Doesn't that depress you?

This suits The Right (well, if they can use capitals and huge overgeneralisations, I don't see why I can't, so I'm using "The Right" to mean "everyone I don't like, from Ronald Reagan to Ronald McDonald, tainting everyone with the actions of the people I dislike the most") very well indeed. They might like to make the feeble suggestion that 30 November was a damp squib, but it wasn't -- it was popular, powerful and impressive.

I was out there on the picket lines, seeing the numbers at rallies and hearing about the passionate reasons why moderate workers had decided to take action. It wasn't because some nasty spectral bully in charge of their union had forced them into it; it was because they were fed up with what had been handed out to them, and why the public sector had been scapegoated and picked on by the Coalition to pay extra pensions that wouldn't even go into their pension pots.

These people weren't the usual leftie troublemakers stirring up disaffected workers; these were hardworking taxpayers who'd had enough of being squeezed dry.

These were men and women who simply did not buy the Government's line that we were all going to have to do our bit in these troubled times -- and I heard time and time again the comparison made between the pensions of those who had caused this crisis, those MPs who had failed their country, and those who were now being targeted as having 'gold-plated' futures. People aren't buying the Coalition's line, and that should be of real concern to them; it's not just the strikers and their natural sympathisers who have worked that out, either.

I had written, before 30 November, that the strikes risked drawing a wedge between similarly badly-treated groups of private and public sector workers unless they could appeal to as broad a range of people as possible. Looking at it now, I don't think those fears were justified. I heard many speakers and union members talking about the need to make private sector pensions fairer, the need for private and public sector workers to unite against the common enemy in Government, and the desire to ensure this didn't become a conflict between groups of employees.

Let's focus on that. Let's focus on the success of 30 November, and what it means for the future. The public don't trust the Government, despite the cheerleading for the Tory agenda and the hissing at the strikers from the usual sections of the press. Striking might upset some, but it has the support of many. Forget one man and his silly comments -- the debate about Clarkson is just what the Government would like to happen, to draw attention away from their miserably poor attempts to demonise strikers.

Don't let them get away with it. Otherwise, you should be taken outside and shot in front of your kids.

 

 

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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The biggest divide in politics is not left against right, but liberals against authoritarians

My week, including a Lib Dem membership rise, The Avalanches, and why I'm putting pressure on Theresa May over child refugees.

It is a boost for us that Nick Clegg has agreed to return to the front line and be our Brexit spokesperson. I hadn’t even had a chance at our meeting to make him the offer when he said: “Before we start, I’ve been thinking about this and want to take on the fight over Europe.”

With Labour apparently willing to give the Tories a free pass to take us out of Europe, the Liberal Democrats are the only UK-wide party that will go into the next election campaigning to maintain our membership of the EU. The stage is remarkably clear for us to remind Theresa May precisely what she would be risking if we abandon free trade, free movement, environmental protection, workers’ rights and cross-border security co-operation. More than a month on from the referendum, all we have heard from the Tories is that “Brexit means Brexit” – but they have given us no clue that they understand what that means.

 

Premature obituaries

Not long ago, the received wisdom was that all political parties were dying – but lately the supposed corpses have twitched into life. True, many who have joined Labour’s ranks are so hard left that they don’t see winning elections as a primary (or even a desirable) purpose of a party, and opening up Labour to those with a very different agenda could ultimately destroy it.

Our experience has been happier: 20,000 people joined the Liberal Democrat fightback in the wake of the 2015 general election result, and 17,000 more have joined since the referendum. We now have more members than at any time this century.

 

Breaking up is hard to do

Journalists have been asking repeatedly if I want to see the break-up of the Labour Party, with moderates defecting to the Liberal Democrats. I have been clear that I am not a home-wrecker and it is for Labour to determine its own future, just as I focus on advancing the Liberal Democrat cause. Yet I have also been clear that I am happy for my party to be a home for liberals of whatever hue. I enjoyed campaigning in the referendum with a variety of progressive figures, just as moderates from different parties shared platforms in 1975. It struck me that far more unites us than divides us.

That said, not all “moderate” Labour figures could be described as “liberal”, as John Reid demonstrated as Labour home secretary. The modern political divide is less left v right than authoritarian v liberal. Both left and right are looking increasingly authoritarian and outright nasty, with fewer voices prepared to stand up for liberal values.

 

What I did on my holidays

Time off has been virtually non-existent, but I am reading A Wilderness of Mirrors by Mark Meynell (about loss of trust in politics, the media and just about everything). I’m also obsessively listening to Wildflower by the Avalanches, their second album, 16 years after their first. It’s outstanding – almost 60 minutes of intelligently crafted dialogue, samples and epic production.

During the political maelstrom, I have been thinking back to the idyllic few days I spent over half-term on the Scottish island of Colonsay: swimming in the sea with the kids (very cold but strangely exhilarating ­after a decent jog), running and walking. An added bonus is that Colonsay is the smallest island in the world to have its own brewery. I can now heartily recommend it.

 

Preparing for the next fight

The odds are weirdly long on an early general election, but I refuse to be complacent – and not merely because the bookies were so wrong about Brexit. If we have learned one truth about Theresa May as Prime Minister so far, it is that she is utterly ruthless. After her savage cabinet sackings, this is, in effect, a new government. She has refused to go to the country, even though she lectured Gordon Brown on the need to gain the endorsement of the electorate when he replaced Tony Blair. Perhaps she doesn’t care much about legitimacy, but she cares about power.

You can be sure that she will be keeping half an eye on Labour’s leadership election. With Jeremy Corbyn potentially reconfirmed as leader in September against the wishes of three-quarters of his MPs, Mrs May might conclude that she will never have a better chance to increase her narrow majority. Throw in the possibility that the economy worsens next year as Brexit starts to bite, and I rule nothing out.

So, we are already selecting candidates. It is vital that they dig in early. As we are the only party prepared to make the positive case for Europe, such an election would present us with an amazing opportunity.

 

Sitting Priti

David Cameron pledged to take an unspecified number of unaccompanied children from camps across the Continent. I am putting pressure on Theresa May to turn that vague commitment into a proper plan. Having visited such camps, I have been fighting for Britain to give sanctuary to a minimum of 3,000 unaccompanied children, who are currently open to the worst kinds of exploitation. We have heard nothing but silence from the government, with underfunded councils reporting that they are not receiving the help they need from Whitehall.

Meanwhile, it remains government policy to send refugees to Turkey – whose increasingly authoritarian government has just suspended human rights protection.

As if all of this were not grim enough, we have a new Secretary of State for International Development, Priti Patel, who has said that she thinks aid should be used largely to promote trade. As someone who wants our country to be respected around the world, I find this plain embarrassing. Actually, it’s worse. It’s shaming. As with Europe, so with the world: the ­Conservative government is hauling up the drawbridge just when we need more than ever to engage with people beyond our shores.

Tim Farron is the leader of the Liberal Democrats. To join the party, visit: libdems.org.uk/join

Tim Farron is leader of the Liberal Democrats.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue